Ignorance Is Bliss
A French artist fries the competition.
Words Rainey Cruz Photos Alexander Richter
Shelter’s a funny thing. A huge portion of the world struggles to maintain a stable sanctuary, while others that are less fortunate don’t even have the luxury to begin with. That creates fringes. It is there, along the borders or the “wrong side of the tracks,” where many of us learn to embrace our inner anarchist – how to question the rules and trust our primal instincts.
I owe a lot to my sheltered upbringing. It shielded me. Had it not been for a benevolent aunt – my dad’s sister – who adopted me from my divorced Caribbean parents and brought me stateside, I’d probably have a completely different tale to tell. But for a long time, the shield also kept me veiled from necessary evils.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, French artist, FUZI, knows the fringes well. When his parents broke up he spent his upbringing moving about France. The nomadic trial disrupted his youth, never quite allowing him to settle into a nest. But it was also these circumstances that granted him the idle time to wander the streets. He would hit the derelict back alleys and loiter in nearby train yards where he eventually discovered graffiti. His curiosity then morphed from exploration to experimentation with the art form.
Over time, learning and living graffiti meant challenging authority, physical altercations with rivals, and stealing whatever he desired. It won him what FUZI describes as “total impunity” and became his absolute lifestyle of choice. He describes it best as a breakaway from the psychological shelters of society, “…When you leave the institutions — school, parents — when the only thing you do is hang out with your graffiti friends, when you break the ties from others reality.’” He was 17 when he moved in with a girlfriend and began to completely devote himself to racking, writing, and anarchy.
For me, it wasn’t until I was 23 that I began to break free. After 20—odd years of institutional learning (and learning about my biological parents), I was through with being passive. At the peak of my frustration with the illusory definition of success, a new reality floored me thanks to one of my last classes at Carnegie Mellon University. The class was called Culture and Identity in American Society and taught by Professor Scott Sandage. You know Neo and The Matrix? Professor Sandage was my Morpheus. The guy showed me the red and blue pill of history and reassured me that society’s standards of winning and losing were pure subjective bullshit. The fuck? “You mean it doesn’t matter when I hand in this assignment, because you have the power to give me an ‘A’ anyway?” Exactly.
Now let’s flashback to FUZI’s golden era of impunity – the ‘90s in France – when his crew
UVTPK (Ultra Violent and The Psychopath Killers) ruled the train lines. This is when FUZI began seeking identity and freethinking even within the already-rebellious nature of the graffiti matrix. The pressures of evolving with the scene and the commercial rise of ‘zines were weighing on his mind. He realized that even in anarchy there were many contradictions. Some were just as conditioned as the rules of a non-criminal life. There was status, there were legal ramifications, and now, a personal emptiness about the pursuit. So it was time to go. But not before creating and owning his personal graffiti style that he dubs, “Ignorant Style,” wherein the goal isn’t to succumb to the external pressures of change, but instead, devote himself to the unique and “ignorant” free-form of his illustration and graffiti.
Here’s where it all intertwines in a strange, dualistic way. What FUZI saw and learned in his days of graffiti and anarchy, I’ve only begun to tap into now, only after leaving my institutionalized mindset. Ironically, FUZI, the fast-living rebel that once terrorized the streets and trains of Paris, has willingly compromised parts of that lifestyle in order to focus on an even greater body of work. It’s as if both of us have decided to flip to the other side of our respective coins.
Be it fate, curiosity, or just an opportunity to get inked in a stairwell by a street legend, FUZI’s newfound tattoo career has made its mark on the inside of my right forearm – and my psyche. We come from completely different upbringings, but when I met him I felt respect for the stranger. In “Devoration” — a biographical interview and account — he describes the willful and conscious shifts in his life as part of an internal compass that has guided him, self-realized or not. I think that our meeting was my way of agreeing to that truth that I have somehow been led to — a testament to anyone’s devoration, instincts, and unwinding soul.
FUZI had to catch a flight back to France after our session so we caught up later. We discussed a few things and explored his truths. Here’s what the “Ignorant Style” master had to share.
Your latest visit to NYC involved a two-day marathon session at MuddGuts in Brooklyn. That’s pretty long-drawn. How was that for you?
It was intense. I made 24 tattoos on 23 clients over two days. I also hung and framed original flash illustrations on the wall, as well as had prints, books and other things on hand. It was good to see some of my repeat clients and friends again, and to meet new people. I definitely left my “Ignorant Style” mark this time.
I think New York is one of the most open-minded cities in the world and it seems like the people there really understand my art. I’m impatient to go back.
You have strangers from all over the world seek out your tattoo work. Who have been some of the most memorable people that you’ve tattooed?
Each guy is different, but there is always a common point; they love my art and my way of thinking. I like to think about it like a community. There are famous people, criminals, students, artists…but all are searching for a kind of freedom. Something new and real.
That makes sense. What was the most important thing to you during your graffiti days? Can you explain why?
Freedom was and is the most important to me.
The most simplistic way to analyze graffiti is to say it is an identity quest. “They write their names to assert themselves, blah blah blah…” It might be the case when you’re young and start writing. But, when you spend more than 10 years of your life doing it every day, with the life that goes with it, it’s not about asserting yourself. It is about passion, true rebellion, counter-culture art.
For instance, very quickly, I didn’t care about writing my name anymore. I mostly used the name of the group and many other aliases. I knew I could go to the yard by myself. I would go there to live in the moment, for the adrenaline, the love of creating. When you get there, you master all the parameters of risks in the game and you write just about any name or word, just to experience the moment. That’s when you touch something essential, something that comes close to pure expression, to total freedom.
You were real down to earth and friendly with a good sense of humor, but when you were getting photographed, especially in poses that represented UVTPK, I saw that you were also very serious and hardcore in your demeanor. Can you explain those extremes?
It’s simple, I’m just honest and real. I can be good or bad like everybody; it just depends on the situation. I was more “hardcore” when I represented my crew, because it was serious. That feeling is still inside me, but I’m not like that all the time. We all live with the little angel and demon in our minds.
How important was it to be able to know the angel or demon in other people? Like cops and rival crews during your days of bombing, shoplifting and fighting?
The everyday graffiti life teaches you to react quickly in different situations. You must adapt every time to the situation when you steal, tag or locate a spot. You must make good choices in stressful times. It’s a part of the skill set of a writer.
Society teaches us that fighting, shoplifting and tagging are primitive, criminal, and deviant behaviors. But I feel like they can actually be the opposite. I think they can be honest and profound behaviors. Which would you agree with?
It’s not the opposite, just totally different, depending on where you are coming from. If I had come from money, or a family with a big fancy house, I don’t think I would have thought fighting, tagging, or stealing were good ideas. Society creates this situation where you MUST become primitive again, and you must steal to eat, fight to live, or tag to express yourself.
A lot of your art references the streets, violence, sex, power, and respect. At the same time it can be very ironic, funny and bold. I feel like there is a lot of truth in it, especially when it comes to people. Why do you think we, as humans, are so complex?
Nothing is black or white, just a lot of gray nuances. Irony is a weapon; I play with symbols. I’m not the thug, or the artist, or the writer. I’m all of these things and a lot of other things also. My art is me and other humans, we are all complex.
One of the pieces that stuck out to me was your “Power Man” image depicting the man with the huge penis and lots of money signs around him. Judging from what I’ve seen and lived, I feel like that’s a pretty honest and raw representation. Can you explain the meaning behind it?
The tattoo says “Power Man” with a drawing of a guy with a big dick, muscles, money and guns — all ingredients of domination. It seems funny, but also totally true. I have tattooed this one on myself.
The more I think about it, I feel like your “Ignorant Style” art is a philosophy of brutal reality, pleasurable or painful. Or about seeing the irony in even the most dreadful things. Do you agree?
Maybe I just think differently. I don’t follow the “normal” way. I have found my own way, and I find beauty in things that other people don’t.
After graffiti you took some time to pursue street fighting and then Muay Thai kickboxing. How did that alter the course of your journey?
I stopped painting graffiti when I felt it lost its meaning. I felt a lot less excited and street life had overridden the rest. It was a quite personal choice. I could deal with crew life as long as I enjoyed the competition I could find in graffiti. From that moment, the passion faded and I started feeling the things I could see in the eyes of the other guys in the street: emptiness, vice, and drifting. The only way for me to change was to leave my environment, my way of living, and my friends. I needed to go away, to face life outside the group. I left Paris, and I took up boxing; it really felt like a door to a new path for me.
What did fighting show or prove to you about yourself?
Boxing was a way to prove something to myself; street fights had made me live in a pretty violent way and I wanted to experience a more healthy way to deal with it. For five years, I went to training every day. My whole life was dedicated to Muay Thai. I found a rigor, a quest for perfection, and it was a very comprehensive commitment.
You mention that throughout your journey from graffiti to fine art to tattooing, you’ve always felt like you’ve been on some sort of invisible path.
It’s a feeling, like all will happen as it’s supposed to. It’s difficult to explain, but I think I have never really changed since I painted all the time in the subway. I had a goal, an idea of my art and my rules, and I just continued on this path, but with different mediums.
Your book and recent exhibition in Paris, “Devoration,” was focused on the idea of being consumed by your work. Why did you choose this title and what are you working on next?
“Devoration” is a book about my way. I talk about my background and how it pushed me to become who I am now. How I have built my art. How I have invented the “Ignorant Style.” How I have brought the new style to my tattooing and about my future with the art.
I discovered that word, devoration, from the Gypsies from Perpignan. They use it to describe their attitude toward drugs; the mix between adoration and the idea of getting devoured by it. It totally fits me. I have this thing I can’t fight against, a thing that feeds me as much as it eats me. You need to control that kind of beast. During my graffiti period, it was totally out of control and now I tame it better.
Since finishing the series for “Devoration,” which were illustrations on leather from the Parisian Metro seats, I am now working on a series of large-scale flash paintings for an exhibition in Russia. I’ll also have an event at Wood Wood in Copenhagen in April and another event in Australia in May. I’m also hoping to do something in LA this summer, and probably New York again.
You mention the intimacy of being in the moment when doing graffiti, fighting, tattooing, and most recently your exhibited art. How do they all relate in your quest?
There are definite similarities between boxing and graffiti; in both, I really looked for the moment, the very instant when you forget everything and nothing counts but the feelings that very much resemble instinct. There was a mix of adrenaline, stress and creativity.
If the only goal of it all was just to paint your name or be punched, nobody would ever do it. We do it because once you’re there, your life makes sense. It gets pretty spiritual.
Tattooing, in a shop or at an event, lacks this feeling, and this is why I like to tattoo in unusual and illegal places, like rooftops and subway tunnels.
It brings back the feelings I had when I painted my train line or boxed. Plus, it leaves a mark on the memory, not just the skin.
This article appears in Mass Appeal Issue 54. Subscribe to the magazine here.